The 1996 Olympic gold medalist in decathlon, Dan O'Brien, coaches a heptathlete now, and on the second day of competition at the 2008 US Olympic Track & Field Trials, his "coaching" duties included haggling with volunteer security guards to let his athlete onto the practice field when she forgot her credential at the hotel. That afternoon, he was surprised again when his heptathlete, Jacquelyn Johnson, placed second overall, with a score of 6347. Johnson qualified for the 2008 Olympic team but O'Brien said, "I would have never thought she couldn't win with 6300 points." The winner, Hyleas Fountain, scored 6667, which O'Brien called "gold medal stuff."
Still, the US has only produced one Olympic medalist in heptathlon so far: Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1988 gold, 1992 gold, and 1984 silver). O'Brien spoke to teamusa.org about the status of track's multi-event disciplines, heptathlon and decathlon, which traditionally produce the "world's greatest athletes."
How did you, one of the most famous faces in decathlon, cross over to coach women in heptathlon?
I moved to Arizona and was working out when coach [Greg] Kraft said, ‘Would you come help with a decathlete [at Arizona State]?' Next thing I know, I'm running 200s with Jacquelyn and mentoring her. Eventually, other coaches started asking me, ‘What do you think?"
Why have American heptathletes been unable to find the same success on the world stage that American decathletes have?
What's happened is that our best athletes have not been in heptathlon. Jackie Joyner-Kersee was one of the best hurdlers and long jumpers and ended up in the heptathlon. Now, when you're a world class hurdler, you leave to specialize. Four years after competing in Athens [in heptathlon] Michelle Perry is a two-time world champion in 100-meter hurdles.
Why do they specialize?
It's not as hard on your body. But it's not as fun, either.
If the trend is toward specialization, it doesn't bode well for the future of US heptathlon, does it?
I think it's very cyclical. We're going to see something like the shift in US distance running. The US is coming up again. Like in the sprints, Jamaica is coming around.
How can the US turn heptathlon and decathlon around in its favor?
One of the problems is that there are only 5 or 6 great multi-event coaches in the US now: Kevin Reid who was Dave Johnson's coach and who coached [2004 Olympic silver medalist] Bryan Clay; Rick Sloan at Washington State, my coach for 15 years, who also coaches Diana Pickler [who placed third at the 2008 Olympic Trials and will represent the US in Beijing]; Bill Webb at Tennessee; Cliff Rovelto at Kansas State who coached Steve Fritz in 1996. [Fritz placed 4th at the Atlanta Olympics]; and Bob Kersee out of UCLA who's a volunteer assistant there. As you come out of high school, you look at the list. Well, where am I gonna go? Historically, this is where the champions come from, and success breeds success. But it's funny. I don't know why no one ever asks me, ‘How'd you do it?'
Seriously? No one asks you?
Track and field is a very individual sport. It's like boxing. We want to do it our own way. Jacquelyn was the first one, besides Diana Pickler at Washington State who wanted to know how I did it. I'd love to help. Next year, I will be getting three decathletes at Arizona State. My theories on decathlon are the same as Coach Sloan. We're all about frequency and consistency, not the length of workouts.
How do you feel about the state of your event, decathlon, in the US?
I'm happy with where decathlon is now. But honestly, when Bryan Clay is done and Tom Pappas is done, there's one good guy left as far as points go: Trey Hardee.
Why isn't there any depth anymore? What's missing?
Corporate support for multi-event athletes is what's missing. It brings people together and lets them share ideas. Visa used to be a big sponsor and we had camps. At the 1996 Olympic Trials, we were the highest scoring threesome in American history: me , Steve Fritz , Chris Huffins . Then Visa pulled out, and in 2000, we had two good guys [Tom Pappas and Huffins] and one OK guy [Kip Janvrin]. In 2004, we had two good guys [Clay and Pappas]. The biggest thing is no corporate support. You can't get together and share ideas.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.